Reflecting on the portrait of Baroness Sheila Hollins

Professor Sheila HollinsWe join many other medical Royal Colleges in displaying portraits of past presidents; a mark of esteem of their leadership of their professional organisation.recent project sought to better understand our portraits by speaking to the sitters and the artists. 

Baroness Sheila Hollins, president 2005-2008 
Date of Interview: 
December 2022
Interviewer and Transcriber: 
Claire Hilton

Artist: Keith Breeden
Date of interview: March 2023
Catriona Grant and Claire Hilton
Claire Hilton

Sheila Hollins reflecting on the portrait

Immediately after completing house jobs and the birth of my first daughter, I decided to do a trainee year in general practice, and I went straight on to become a salaried partner in a south London practice. We would have 5-minute appointments double booked. A couple of patients that I will never forget made me realise that I needed to have some different skills.

Two years later, Queen Mary's Roehampton advertised a part time training post in psychiatry. What an extraordinary opportunity! The hospital had a workplace crèche and my children went there. But the hospital management team decided to close it. In our campaign to keep it open, I learned that going and explaining to people was something that was perfectly possible. We all have influence if only we have the courage to think about it carefully and present our arguments in ways which can be understood and which are reliable. It’s no good having an ideological view, you have to have the facts. When you explain, people understand and perhaps make less harmful decisions. 

Understanding our patients

Along the way, my son had been diagnosed as having a learning disability, so in the Child Guidance Clinic, I became very interested in taking on children with learning disabilities. I joined the first ever professor in the psychiatry of “mental handicap”, Joan Bicknell, at St George's in 1981. I looked after a catchment area and my GP training came in very well because I used to visit my patients, wherever they wanted, wherever they felt most comfortable, because the aim of the consultation was to try to understand them. 

Just six weeks before I took up the presidency, my youngest daughter was stabbed. I went to see a poet who specialises in leadership and creativity, to give me some coaching for my presidential speech. He said: “Well, you're going to have to say something about your daughter, because otherwise everyone is just going to ask you.” But he said: “You can deal with that in the tone of voice you use and in the body posture you adopt”. So he suggested, and I practised: “stand there, with your arms in a kind of soft position and a slightly lower voice, just thanking people for their thoughts and compassionate messages. But please don't ask me about it today. Today is not for that. Today I'm becoming your president.” And then I was to move to a different position, stand differently and then be president. So that's what I did.

When I was asked to think about who I might like to draw my portrait. I went to the annual exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, and Keith Breeden just stood out. It was the eyes that did it. 

Painting the artist

I remember on the first day I was sitting there, I said: “What am I supposed to do, draw your portrait or something?” He said: “Would you like to? Do you paint?” I said: “I’ve never painted in my life!”  He said: “Well I can show you how!” I didn’t spend a long time trying to paint him, but I did experiment, and it was for me quite an important part of trying to understand how do you go about it: What do you choose? What do you see in a face? How do you put that onto paper? I found it quite an extraordinary thing. Afterwards, when he presented me with my portrait, I presented him with his!*

Often there'd be long periods of not talking, and then he'd be sitting there for a long time looking. And then he would take a bit of paint and he’d do something, and then the conversation would start. We talked a lot about philosophical, kind of deep, meaningful, life experiences. We talked about mental health, psychiatry and the Royal bit, and what all of those things might mean. This was the context in which the lettering was being done. To me the words say “think”. 

I think given what I'd been through, I look extraordinarily relaxed and composed. I think the portrait is about holding my head up high and saying, “I am who I am” and it's OK to be who I am. And it's also about listening. I think the expression on my face is that I'm listening. I hope it is. 

Keith Breeden reflecting on the portrait

I want people to feel relaxed and happy to sit there. I think they quite enjoy their time doing it because they talk about stuff they probably don't normally talk about. Psychologically, for me, I suppose I need to feel comfortable. I don't really take too much notice of what people want out of a painting in terms of what they say they want because it's not my job to do that. My job is to do what I want with the painting and what I see in them. I need their collaboration to do the job. If they collaborate with me, I will see the real them. 

The biggest thing we can get out of life as an individual is to share a moment with somebody else. I don't think there's anything greater than that, as an experience. 

Becoming friends

Because I feel I have to get under the surface of somebody, I push them quite hard. Afterwards, all the sitters I've worked with, they're always there. There're very few I wouldn't count as friends. If there's somebody that I wanted to ask about something, I've just contacted them. I don't know if they feel the same. Probably I’m a pest! But I don't think so. I would say Sheila’s a friend actually, because even though I never see her, my daughter wanted to do VSO a few years ago, and I knew Sheila was involved, so I got in touch with her and asked her. And she was brilliant. She was so helpful.

One of the first thing Sheila Hollins did when she came and sat in the studio, she pulled a sketch pad out of a bag with a pencil, and started drawing me! No one’s ever done that before, and no one has ever done it since, but because she was a psychiatrist (I didn't know anything about psychiatrists) I thought, “Well, that figures!” It's a way of making yourself feel at home, and also, it struck me as a way of making someone feel in charge.

A living likeness

I don't really value putting clues about people's life in a painting. The purpose of a portrait is always to present a living likeness of the person, and anything else is lesser painting, because it's drawing attention away. Everything is in the person. I'm trying to make myself let all the rest of the painting go and just paint the eyes, just paint that part of the face. I'm forever redoing the smile! I don't paint people smiling. I don't because it's one aspect of somebody and it's a presentation to the world, but it's not them. I paint people with the potential to smile. 

But it's not enough to do a plain background, so I have to invent something. The words add a texture and a richness to the painting that probably wouldn't be there otherwise. What the words say is not important, they're appropriate to the people and the way they are in the world. 

To my mind, I think what makes my paintings what they are is that I really care. I really care about what I'm doing. I really care about the surface of the paint. I love the paint. I love the process. I love it when you put the brush down and it just looks right, it just works. It's such a nice feeling. It doesn't happen very often, but it's nice when it happens. 


I've never been trained. I just figure it out. But being self-taught, it tends to mean you're constantly trying to prove yourself. When I do a portrait often there's an unveiling, and very often they'll be a big clap and people go “Oh!” because they tend to like it. I always don't like the painting when it's unveiled. I'm a perfectionist, it's never good enough, always missed the mark. I don't feel “Oh, that's great!”, I feel a bit relieved. A French poet, I forget his name, said, I think in the context of poems, “A work is never finished. It's only ever abandoned” and I think that's really true. What I've learned is you have to recognize a point that you can abandon it safely. But also, I think the fact that I do portraits is like I'm always putting myself out there, and part of the problem I have with it is that, whether it's good or bad or indifferent, it's there forever. 

I went to an unveiling recently, for a Nobel Prize winning scientist. I would never get to spend time with a Nobel Prize winning scientist unless I was painting his portrait. It's just fantastic! I am so lucky to do this job.

* Keith told us that the portrait of him which Sheila painted is framed and in his studio. 
Read more to receive further information regarding a career in psychiatry